Matt Dickerson: A first adventure in snow
Several days ago my wife, Deborah, and I went snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on a thick blanket of lovely fresh snow. We weren’t alone. Joining us on the outing was our friend Felicia. Felicia had never been snowshoeing or skiing before.
Felicia is in her third and final year living in Vermont thanks to a temporary job in town. Two and a half years in, and she still isn’t a big fan of the cold of Vermont winters. For that, she can be excused. Felicia grew up in Jamaica. The average January temperature in Montego Bay (near the cold northwest corner of the Caribbean island nation) is 74 degrees. That’s at nighttime. In the day, it’s 83. Down in Kingston on the southeast coast, the average daytime temperature is even warmer: a balmy 88. When her job ends, Felicia will be returning to Jamaica, leaving ice and snow and frost far behind. Yet she decided she shouldn’t leave Vermont without at least trying out a winter sport.
In many ways, this was a bold and adventurous step. There are plenty of people who have lived in Vermont for years, who have never been on cross-country skis. Those who have been on skis — especially those who remember their first experience on them — will tell you that skis are slippery. They are designed that way. Until you learn to control them, they have a habit of shooting out from under you.
When I’m in hiking boots and I start down a steep slope, I lean backward into the slope. That leaning backward is a natural instinct when one is headed downhill wanting to resist the pull of gravity. It’s also a generally unhelpful instinct when on cross-country skis, as it accelerates the shooting of your skis out from underneath you. Also, one of the reasons skis slide out from under you so quickly is that they are riding atop snow, which also happens to be one of those particularly cold (and wet) aspects of Vermont in January.
But Felicia was feeling bold and adventurous. She had also taken to heart Deborah’s exhortation that if one wants to enjoy winter and not merely tolerate and survive it, they need to actively embrace it. And the best way to embrace it is to get outside and participate in a winter activity. So we took her with us up to Ripton for a day at the Rikert Nordic Center. To give her a more complete taste of Vermont winter sports, and to make the day even more bold and adventurous, we thought we would pack snowshoeing and skiing into the same trip. Deborah suggested we snowshoe first, as it might provide a more gentle introduction to snow than cross-country skiing; snowshoes — though not exactly easy to get used to — don’t have the same propensity to shoot out from underneath.
Conditions were ideal. Nobody had yet been on the snowshoe trails when we arrived, and the roughly eight inches of fresh snow was the perfect amount: enough to give the sense of freshness, without being so much as to make the snowshoes exhausting or unwieldy. Deborah and I took turns breaking the trail. Felicia tromped along between us. The hemlocks and pines were still bearing the weight of the fresh snow, with branches bending low under the burden.
In places the trail narrowed to almost a tunnel, and the woods filled to the brim with mysterious quiet. “It’s like walking through Narnia,” Deborah said. And Felicia smiled.
We made it through the whole snowshoe loop without incident, stopping only to take pictures, sip from my thermos of hot cocoa, and admire the beauty of the woods. Felicia acknowledged it was actually fun, and she might want to try it again.
Then came the cross-country skiing. Which also proved fun — though not quite as easy nor as free of incident. We glided our way around the perimeter of the field, with Deborah and I alternately giving Felicia pointers on how to use her skis and poles, and reminders not to lean backward on the hills. Also how to get up off the snow when she fell. Cross-country skis are quite slippery, as I already mentioned.
But Felicia never gave up. Although we were constantly and simultaneously telling her at least five different things she needed to be doing, she focused on one at a time, grasped it, then moved on to the next. Still, Deborah and I were a bit worried at the end. Had we dragged her into some miserable experience? Were we the cause of her suffering? Would she ever trust us again?
We were afraid to ask. But then, just a couple days after our adventure, Felicia called Deborah and asked if we could go again. Toleration had taken its first gliding step toward enjoyment.
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